A glorious voice
Ralph Moore | Bishop's Stortford, UK | 07/22/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Ettore Bastianini died of throat cancer in 1967 at only forty-four years old, yet in a career spanning little more than a dozen years, he came to typify the ideal Verdi baritone. His voice had a burnished, brazen quality that carried an inimitable thrill even if at times he lacked subtlety. His early training as a bass, before he shifted tessitura in 1952, seemed to give the lower reaches of his voice a stentorian heft that does not sound as if it could be comfortably carried up, yet he developed the most brilliant upper extension rising to a ringing top A flat. His diction was exemplary and he was handsome of physique; perhaps the only baritone who could properly measure up, physically and vocally, to Franco Corelli and Mario Del Monaco on stage. Just occasionally, a certain ennui would creep into his performances and he could, with some justification, be accused of merely going through the motions when it came to dramatic nuance - but with a voice as grand as his, few complained. On records, this tendency towards carelessness of characterisation and even monotony of sound can be more noticeable, yet it there are so many purely vocal compensations that it seems churlish to demur. John Culshaw, the famous Decca producer, claimed that as his career developed, Bastianini grew tired of the baritone repertoire that ideally suited him and perhaps even began to regret the change he had made from bass to baritone. If this was true, it lends a horrible irony to the onset of the disease and the manner of his death. An intensely private man, Bastianini concealed the illness that was so soon to kill him, resulting in some booing of his performances at the Met in 1965 which in retrospect seems shameful - but very few people had any idea of his terrible affliction, even though towards the end of his career it manifested itself in unpredictable hoarseness. Here, however, we hear him at his best. Pavel Lisitsian was the only contemporary baritone who could rival him in sheer Italianate amplitude of voice; to find their equal you would have to go back to Ruffo, Stracciari and Amato, putting Bastianini in exalted company.
This well-filled recital disc from Urania is made up of both studio and live recordings. It is slightly odd that it does not include any of his famous performances in "Il Trovatore", yet the booklet contains a photograph of him as di Luna accompanied by Corelli. We still have here a healthy selection of Verdi, plus Ponchielli, Rossini and Donizetti. Although neither of the latter two composers was exactly ideal for his voice, he was of course singing at a time when the "big-boned" approach to Donizetti was still prevalent and any baritone worth his salt had to sing the Barber. It is nonetheless in Verdi and verismo roles that he excelled, especially Gérard in "Andrea Chénier", Michonnet in "Adriana Lecouvreur" and Tonio in "I Pagliacci", but none of the latter is present. So although there is much to enjoy in this compilation it does not comprehensively reflect Bastianini's achievement, nor do I know of a disc that does. For so major a singer, there is at present comparatively little available, although I have recently acquired recital discs from Andromeda and Myto; otherwise, Bastianini made about a dozen studio recordings of complete operas, mostly with Decca.
The first half of the disc consists of seven extracts from five complete sets; the remaining five tracks are from two live recordings: a 1957 "Un ballo in maschera" and a 1956 "Don Carlo". Track seven is wrongly described as live; it is from the 1957 studio recording of "La Gioconda" with an exalted cast: Cerquetti, Simionato, Del Monaco, Siepi and Bastianini himself, here singing "O monumento!" Track five, from "La Favorita", contains a misprint in the title and should read "Giardini dell'Alcazar".
The first excerpts from the complete 1956 recording of "Il barbiere di Siviglia" finds Bastianini in rock-solid voice, belting out top G's with gusto and making an excellent job of exploiting the comic possibilities of the rôle. His diction, expression and timing are superb, and although Erede's speeds are steadier than those of Schüchter in the 1954 recording of the "Largo", Bastianini is more characterful and the recording quality superior. The second extended excerpt is with Alvino Misciano, a worthy tenor previously unknown to me. It goes very well and there is a lovely lilt in the concluding "Già viene l'oro". Next come excerpts from the complete "Lucia di Lammermoor" with Renata Scotto in excellent form. This set has been overlooked in favour of those starring Callas and Sutherland. It is true that by 1958 Di Stefano is already not in freshest voice and Scotto is a little anonymous but there is much to enjoy here. There is no mention of the source for these re-masterings, but some thumps, swooshes and fluctuations of pitch suggest that they have been taken from LP's. Bastianini does not attempt much subtlety in his characterisation but Edgardo is in any case a bit of a brute, so he does what is required and in glorious voice delivers a forthright account of those hectoring arias. I cannot discover who the uncredited comprimario tenor is who sings Normanno; no doubt someone who owns the complete set can supply this information.
The soulful aria from "La Favorita" allows Bastianini to display his beautiful legato and even a trill. We are then back on his real home territory with "Urna fatal" from "La forza del destino", where the richness of the lower regions of his voice is deployed to telling effect (but why are so many of the great baritone rôles such absurd and unpleasant people?). I think it a pity that the selections from "Un ballo in maschera" are from the live Florence performance when the live 1957 set from Milan with Callas and Di Stefano is preferable. The sound in both is pretty crumbly, but the latter is definitely superior artistically. Bastianini in particular gives us a more refined Renato in Milan; in Florence "O dolcezze perdute" is a little crude and even unsteady - and Poggi (alongisde whom Bastianini too often found himself performing) is a distinct liability compared with Di Stefano at his finest.
Finally, the two excerpts from "Don Carlo" present Bastianini as he is best remembered. The great confrontation with Philip is riveting, especially as he is in the company of the finest post-war exponent of the role of King in Cesare Siepi, who evokes a terrible world-weariness which juxtaposes tellingly with the brash idealism of Posa. Siepi's concentrated economy of expression makes the perfect contrast with Bastianini's extraversion; both singers are perfectly in character. A comparison with the 1958 live recording from Salzburg conducted by Karajan reveals a remarkable consistency between their performances; on both occasions Siepi makes the Philip's sudden emotional revelation very moving and Bastianini wholly captures Posa's wide-eyed amazement as he sees his king crumble. The difference between the two performances lies more in the nature of the recorded sound and conducting rather than in the singers: in Salzburg the overall sound picture is clearer but the voices are more recessed and Karajan finds more detail in the score; in Florence, Votto creates more momentum and voices are more forward, but the sound is generally fuzzier. Both performances are treasurable; if you want a studio recording then the hard-to-find 1962 DG set with Christoff is also very fine but Bastianini is in marginally drier, less pliant voice.
Given the current paucity of Bastianini recitals, this Urania edition makes a valuable contribution to the discography and will doubtless urge many to become better acquainted with this uniquely vibrant voice by exploring his complete recordings. He might not always have been the most nuanced of artists but the splendour of his baritone carries all before.